How sharing water management benefits South African villages

Published by:
South Africa
Focus Region:
Sub-Saharan Africa
Focus Topic:
Land / Water / Resource Management

With multi-stakeholder support, a community-led initiative for multiple use water services has provided increased water quantity and more reliable supply to small villages in South Africa.

After decades of their water being managed by external operators, six South African villages developed a plan to structure and manage their own water infrastructure. With the villages needing water for multiple purposes, from cooking dinner through to growing crops, researchers from IWMI wanted to use their experiences as a model for similar community-led initiatives.

IWMI conducted a study of two villages included in the plan. The study showed how co-management of water between governments and the communities helped to make supplies more reliable, shorten journeys to collect water, and deliver higher returns from irrigated crops.  

The multiple use services (MUS) model puts villagers in charge of the design and governance of their own water infrastructure with local authorities helping to develop villagers’ capacities, supply materials and monitor implementation. 

Over the years, external consultants commissioned by state authorities have often designed water systems on behalf of communities. These may have provided water infrastructure for a single purpose, such as domestic use, irrigation or livestock watering. However, water is needed for multiple purposes, and local people are now investing in infrastructure to enhance whatever water provision they have. It makes sense to use that local water wisdom as a starting point for planning water supply services.  

IWMI’s study assessed how the South African villages of Ga Mokgotho and Ga Moela fared when they took part in the ‘Operationalizing community-led multiple use water services (MUS) in South Africa’ project. Carried out by the NGO Tsogang Water and Sanitation between 2016 and 2019, the project was also supported by the African Development Bank and the Water Research Commission of South Africa. In each village Tsogang applied a six-step approach that involved:  

  1. Initiating the collaboration, by agreeing goals and creating a community structure for the work
  2. Diagnosing issues affecting water supply in the community
  3. Envisioning solutions
  4. Fitting the financial framework to available funds
  5. Carrying out the agreed work, by procuring materials, recruiting workers and constructing infrastructure
  6. Using the new water-supply system. 

The two villages are both situated in the mountainous areas of Sekhukhune district but vary greatly in their size. They also varied in their water provision. Ga Mokgotho, a village of 800 households, obtained its water from a gravity system with a reservoir fed by a spring stream. When the project started, the system was in a poor state of repair because the reservoir and pipes were run by an operator that didn’t engage with villagers’ concerns. Ga Moela, which comprises of 118 households, only has groundwater resources. Before the intervention, people living in Ga Moela mostly obtained water for domestic use from 20 shallow dug wells that were also used to water livestock. There were also three functioning government boreholes.

As part of the project, water committees were formed in each village at the outset to oversee the process on behalf of residents. As part of the six-step approach, Ga Mokgotho inhabitants proposed actions that included addressing the past management failures, refurbishing water intakes, repairing or installing new pipes, setting up new taps to serve 50 households, and building two animal troughs. Ga Moela villagers chose to improve their three boreholes by developing new storage, and to add new street taps that would bring resources closer to more households. The villagers appreciated the opportunity to be involved in all steps of the process, which they summed up in the saying ‘nothing about us, without us’.  

While the communities were glad to take ownership of their own water supply, they were also grateful to Tsogang for helping to develop their technical and institutional capacity. Tsogang provided advice, supervision and quality control, and brokered the financial arrangements that covered the cost of materials and construction labor. In both villages, the quantity of water increased by about 56%, and the supply was more reliable than it had been prior to the project. In Ga Moela, residents fetched water in half the time. And in Ga Mokgotho and Ga Moela, the monetary value of irrigated fruit trees was estimated to have increased by 60% and 64% respectively. 


To help other villages capitalize on the project’s success, IWMI has published new evidence-based guidelines on implementing co-managed MUS programs. These are based on findings from all six of the villages that were supported by Tsogang to enhance their communal water provision. As well as outlining the five characteristics of community-led MUS schemes (co-management, participation from the planning stage, building on self-supply, welcoming local innovation and preventing illegal activities), they detail the lessons learned for each step undertaken by Tsogang. They are aimed at governments, policymakers, NGOs, non-state actors, employment-generation programs, climate-change initiatives focusing on watershed development, and rural villagers. 

A new phase of the project is now planned, with two strands. The first will investigate the long-term sustainability of the water-supply interventions in the six villages, while the second will extend the initial project to four new villages. In principle, the MUS approach to water provision is widely transferable. However, the challenge is to embed it into governments’ integrated development planning processes, and to ensure that accountability is placed in the hands of the end users.  

If this can be achieved, MUS has a major role to play in creating sustainable water systems for rural and peri-urban populations around the world.

International Water Management Institute (IWMI)
Barbara van Koppen, Emeritus Scientist, Poverty, Gender and Water, at IWMI
Barbara Van Koppen/IWMI